Rear Admiral Sylvia Trent-Adams

Profiles in Nursing

Rear Admiral Sylvia Trent-Adams

Acting Surgeon General

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Guess what? Since April 21, the nation’s acting surgeon general has been a nurse: Rear Adm. Sylvia Trent-Adams, RN, MSN, Ph.D., FAAN, who was previously the deputy of ousted Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., MBA. She is the first currently practicing RN to attain the U.S. Public Health Service’s highest rank.

She is the first currently practicing RN to attain the U.S. Public Health Service’s highest rank. The United States Public Health Service (USPHS) is a uniformed corps of about 6,700 public health professionals who respond to health issues and health threats across the nation. Its roots go back to the U.S. Marine Hospital Service, founded all the way back in 1798.

Her Career Path

Trent-Adams is originally from Concord, Va., and began her nursing journey as a candy striper at Lynchburg General Hospital when she was only 12. An ROTC scholarship later allowed her to earn her BSN from Virginia’s Hampton University. She then served five years in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, working in oncology, trauma, infectious disease and community health.  

Although she had not planned to continue in uniform after her Army service, Trent-Adams found herself drawn to public health, leading her to join the USPHS in 1992.  Trent-Adams held various positions in the USPHS, including managing the $2.3 billion Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program and later becoming deputy associate administrator of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) HIV/AIDS Bureau.

She also continued her education, earning her MSN from University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON) in 1999 and her Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2006.

Top Nurse

In November 2013, Trent-Adams was promoted to chief nurse officer of the USPHS, responsible for advising HHS and the Office of Surgeon General “on the recruitment, assignment, deployment, retention and career development of Corps nurse professionals.”  She remained the service’s top nurse until about nine months after her promotion to deputy surgeon general in October 2015.

Into the Hot Seat

The Office of the Surgeon General has a relatively small staff and very little actual power. However, its prominence allows the surgeon general to call attention to health priorities like opioid abuse or the dangers of smoking. (We’ve all seen the ubiquitous surgeon general’s warnings on cigarettes and alcohol.)

It has been said that surgeons general often draw the most public attention when they clash with their boss: the president. That was the case with Vivek Murthy, whose outspoken support of gun control may have prompted Donald Trump to fire hire him in April. With Murthy’s termination, Trent-Adams became acting surgeon general.

Her tenure may be short-lived. On June 29, the White House nominated Indiana State Health Commissioner Jermone Adams, M.D., as the new surgeon general, although the Senate would need to confirm him for a four-year term. 

In the meantime, nursing groups are happy to see a practicing RN as surgeon general, even if it raises the hackles of some physicians.

“Throughout her career, Dr. Trent-Adams has been a champion for public health with a clear focus on improving access to care, particularly for poor and underserved communities,” says ANA President Pamela F. Cipriano, RN, Ph.D., NEA-BC, FAAN. “As a nurse, she brings a unique set of perspectives and experiences to the public health arena.”

In Her Own Words

Few would argue that Trent-Adams’ service has elevated the status of all nurses. “There is so much out there for us as a profession,” she told nursing graduates at the UMSON commencement ceremony in Baltimore last December.

“The sky is the limit and we may one day have a nurse astronaut setting up a space station.” What does Trent-Adams say about her new job?

In a brief email response to Working Nurse, she said she is “committed to doing as much as I can each and every day to help others for as long as I am serving in the role of acting surgeon general.”

We at Working Nurse wish her well and applaud her support of the nursing profession. 


No action by any U.S. surgeon general has had more public impact than the famous 1964 report about the dangers of smoking. A year later, the U.S. became the first country to mandate health warnings on cigarette packages (which was controversial at the time because 43 percent of the population smoked!). Other countries followed suit, some adopting far more aggressive slogans like “Your Baby Can Die.” New Zealand has taken a particularly lurid approach, requiring graphic photos of diseased organs, teeth or feet next to warnings like “Smoking Causes Gangrene.”

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